Emily Rodia and Jason Rusnock want to change that.
Do people need to buy laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner, and deodorant in thick plastic containers that could take up to a thousand years to decompose in landfills that produce 15.1% of U.S. methane emissions? Plastic toothbrushes that could take just as long to break down? Nylon dental floss that could take a more modest 50 years to biodegrade?
Rodia and Rusnock, who are engaged to be married, imagined Philadelphia needed an alternative to it all: a store they would name Good Buy Supply, where customers could bring their own reusable containers to stock up on household goods. Where they would also find biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes, silk dental floss, and lotion in a compostable tube; bamboo fiber bandages and shampoo bars stripped of their wrappers and stacked in glass apothecary jars; serviceable vintage kitchen items that didn’t need to head for the trash.
In the midst of a pandemic, Rusnock, a freelance catalog photographer, added to his workload, and Rodia left her job as general manager at Art in the Age, a tasting bar and specialty home bar supply store in Old City. They created their vision: a cozy, environmentally friendly haven and matching website that Rodia and Rusnock have engineered to produce less waste — though not yet the ambitious goal of zero waste.
Inventory still comes wrapped in packaging, though the couple said they do not ship customers’ orders in plastic and are working with vendors willing to minimize the amount of material headed for the garbage pail. As of late December, with the store’s online sales already at 10% and growing during the holiday season, Rodia was researching carbon-neutral shipping, in which companies find the most effective travel routes, package merchandise sustainably, and buy carbon offsets, or donate to an eco-minded project or organization that counteracts the carbon footprint from transportation.
“It definitely is difficult,” said Rodia, 31. “What I had to do was really make sure all the vendors we were working with have protocols in place with how they’re manufacturing, how they’re shipping, and the ingredients they’re using.”
Nestled on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, the couple opened their store last month after they saved up money for years and, in eco-minded fashion, furnished the store by taking items from their own home and getting used furniture for the store instead of buying it new. They spent the most on inventory, but still bought just about what they could fit on the sales floor, with only a little in stock.
Their first customers gave the shop a warm welcome.
“So far, so good,” Rodia said. “Really, we’re overwhelmed with how much people are supporting us.”
Their biggest sellers so far include handmade goat milk soap, general hygiene items, and home cleaning supplies, such as dish soap that comes as a bar and eliminates the need for a plastic bottle.
Although some items cost more than their more common counterparts — Good Buy Supply’s silk floss is $8, for instance — Rodia said other products, such as the store’s unscented laundry powder, at 30 cents an ounce, and wool dryer balls, which are a $4.25 permanent replacement for dryer sheets, are more economical options.
“We hope items like ours become the norm and gradually get cheaper as more suppliers start creating these alternatives,” she said.
The store’s success is unsurprising — perhaps expected.
“I think it’s going to work,” said Sheri Lambert, an assistant professor of practice in marketing and supply chain management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. The sustainability movement, she noted, has long predated Good Buy Supply but has gained momentum in recent years. “It’s right in the heart of the young people — Gen Z and millennial — neighborhood. People still love brick-and-mortar [stores].”
The appeal of environmentally sustainable retail, particularly for the crowd of customers in their early 20s to late 30s, is simultaneously about transparency and growing consciousness about where merchandise comes from and how it is produced, Lambert said. She noted it was why younger consumers have spent their money at companies that include Reformation, Everlane, and Patagonia, which advertise environmental sustainability as a selling point.
Then there’s the concept of social signaling, she said, a theory in psychology that refers to “communicative or informative signals that directly or indirectly provide meanings concerning social interactions, social attitudes, social relationships and social emotions,” according to Isabella Poggi and Francesca D’Errico, both psychology professors in Italy.
“The Gen Z’s and millennials, really, it’s social signaling that they want to be tied to doing something good for the planet,” Lambert said. “So I think it’s going to continue to grow.”
Those between 56 and 74 years old are likely to have less interest in sustainability-focused retail, she said. “Gen Zs have grown up with this sense of urgency and this cause to help our planet, and I don’t think baby boomers were raised that way,” noting that she grew up in “the life of the gas guzzlers.”
The U.S. sustainability market is expected to hit $150 billion by this year, with sustainable goods constituting 25% of sales for many retailers, according to Nielsen, a global marketing and research firm. In 2018 alone, the company said, consumers spent $128.5 billion on sustainable goods, a 20% increase since 2014, when consumers spent $107.4 billion.
Despite growing interest from U.S. consumers for sustainable products — 48% said they wanted them, according to Nielsen — some companies have hesitated to adopt sustainable operations as they require costly initial setup, said Subodha Kumar, a professor of marketing and supply-chain management at Fox School of Business. Companies that invest in such technologies tend to benefit in the long term, he said, citing PepsiCo and Unilever as two successful examples.
PepsiCo , Unilever, and the British multinational alcohol company Diageo said last year that they would begin to sell products in completely paper-based bottles. Diageo, which owns dozens of liquor brands that include Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, and Captain Morgan, said it would begin to roll out the bottles in early 2021, partnering with Pulpex Limited, a sustainable packaging company, to make them. PepsiCo and Unilever are also expected to release their own paper-based bottles for certain products in 2021.
Besides capitalizing on consumers’ growing interest in eco-friendly alternatives, “people are realizing if we don’t take action right now, we won’t have anything for our grandkids, or maybe ourselves,” Kumar said.
Despite some consumers’ push to buy sustainably and reduce their own waste, research from an environmental group has shown just about 100 companies contribute to a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The major emitters include BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Peabody, Shell, and Total, as well as Coal India, National Iranian Oil, PetroChina, and Saudi Aramco, according to a 2017 report from the Carbon Disclosure Project.
On an individual, day-to-day basis, the decision to buy sustainable goods can be manifested in the feeling of doing something right, said Lambert, of the Fox school.
That “warm, fuzzy, feeling,” she said, is a powerful draw.
Cheaper, more easily accessible items beckon, too, making it challenging for Good Buy Supply to keep up.
“It is incredibly hard to compete with current pricing for items that are made with plastics or the volume larger retailers are purchasing at,” Rodia said. “We are hoping to help people realize that while some of the items at these larger places are cheaper, they are made with less concern for the environment and the people making them.”
Eventually, she and Rusnock want to offer classes and workshops on making items such as soap and scrubs. Later this year, she said, they would like to add a consulting component for businesses that want to adopt their own sustainable operations.